Baptism of the Lord at Mississippi Abbey


Baptism of the Lord at Mississippi Abbey

Scripture Readings: Is 42:1-4, 6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Lk 3:15-16, 21-22   

The German poet and novelist, Johann Goethe, dramatizes evil commitments in the life of Faust who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for power, youth and romance. The devil, promises, “If you take your way through life with me, I’ll work things properly for you; I’ll be your servant and your slave.” Faust says, “And in return what do you ask of me?” The devil tells him, “…if beyond we meet again, you shall do the same for me.” Faust replies, “From this earth spring all my joys.  When I must take my leave of them, then come what may, it is of no concern. I will it.” The devil responds, “These are splendid words!”

Soon Faust meets a young, beautiful girl named Gretchen. He seduces her and she bears a child, but in great distress Gretchen tries to hide her shame. She panics and drowns the infant. In the drama’s final scene Faust tries to free her from a dungeon where she is waiting to be executed for her crime. Suddenly, the devil rises up to claim them both. In terror, she cries out to heaven, “Save me, Father.” The devil declares, “She is condemned!” But a voice from above says, “She’s saved!” Rebuffed, he turns to Faust and says, “You! Come with me.” and takes him away. Too late Faust realizes the folly of committing himself to future misery for the sake of present enjoyments. Isn’t that the tragedy of bargaining with evil in the story of every temptation and fall since Paradise was lost? If we had no Savior the devil could claim us all. John the Baptist didn’t know Faust. But he understood the tragedy of sin. So, he cries out, “Flee from the wrath to come.” Because future misery for present enjoyment is a bad bargain.

Jesus makes a better commitment.  As John was preaching, Jesus steps out of the crowd and enters the flowing waters of the Jordan River asking John to baptize him. Why? Jesus didn’t need the first purpose of Baptism, to be washed clean, for he was sinless. He didn’t need the second purpose of Baptism, to be divinized, for he was already holy. So why did Jesus go down into the aquatic womb when he didn’t need to be born again? Because of the third purpose of Baptism, a commitment to renounce Satan and all his works.  The submersion of Jesus in the water was a commitment to suffer and die at the hands of Satan in order to save us. Immediately after Jesus’ baptismal commitment Satan begins tempting him to break it.

Life is a constant battle between the devil’s bargains and our baptismal commitment. Three things happen when we are baptized: first, we are washed clean from all sin; second, we are anointed with the gift of the Holy Spirit making us holy, sharers in God’s own nature; and third, we make a commitment to renounce Satan and all his works. The life of Jesus shows that our baptismal commitment will be costly, but resistance to present temptations for the promised gift of eternal happiness is a good bargain. As happened to Jesus, the devil fights against our baptismal commitment and daily tempts us to break it.

Goethe’s play dramatizes the fate of those make bargains with evil. He also writes about making good bargains: “Until one is committed to a task or inspiration, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. One elementary truth is this: the moment you definitely commit yourself, then Providence moves in. All sorts of things happen to help you that would never otherwise occur, until you are committed to act. A whole stream of events issues from that decision, which you could not have dreamed would come your way. Begin. Boldness has power in it. Begin now.”